The phrase “play to the level of your opponent” has been applicable all season for this Vandal team that scraped out a crucial WAC victory Saturday.
The same Idaho team that led No. 20 New Mexico at The Pit earlier this season lost to a Texas State team that had just one conference victory leading up to its game in Moscow.
Though Idaho was the better team in Saturday’s contest, the same theme held true for the Vandals. Up by as many as 15 points at halftime, Idaho would crumble at San Jose State’s feet in the second half, only to see the Spartans self-destruct in the game’s final five or so minutes.
With leading scorer James Kinney absent from his seventh consecutive game for San Jose State, the Spartans didn’t exactly have a prime scoring threat, which meant point guard DJ Brown would throw up 14 attempts from the field.
Idaho’s perimeter defense was a tad shaky in the second half, when the Spartans cut down their deficit and trailed by one point — at one point. The perimeter D hasn’t been outstanding this season and SJSU benefited from that, especially because the visitors weren’t going down low often.
The Vandals hit the road again for undoubtedly the toughest road stint of the conference season. First, it’s a game in Las Cruces, N.M., with the monsters from New Mexico State. The Aggies are on a nine-game roll, and unless the Vandals have contribution from a post player not named Kyle Barone, NMSU will likely roll to its 10th consecutive conference victory.
Denver has played at an extremely high level as of late, and the Pioneers have won nine of their last ten games. Idaho will need to master its defense of Denver’s Princeton style offense in order to keep this one close. The Pioneers have yet to lose a home conference game.
It wasn’t the 26-point, 16-rebound performance Vandals fans have been accustomed to with Barone, but it was another night and another double-double for the senior center. Barone had another tough match-up, this time with the Spartans’ Chris Cunningham, who blocked a couple of his shots.
Hill did it all, and thankfully was lights out from 3-point range, as well as the free-throw line. The sophomore led all players with 19 points, went 4 of 9 from long range and was effective driving to the basket, drawing fouls and converting 7 of 7 from the charity stripe.
Nothing spectacular from the senior point guard, who was one of four seniors to start Saturday. McChristian drained a few crucial threes in the first half, and surprised everyone with multiple blocked shots. Idaho needed his length to guard SJSU’s DJ Brown, who shot the three early and often. When Robert Harris subbed in, Brown held a major height advantage.
Habeeb told reporters in the postgame press conference that getting the start boosted his confidence. It did indeed, as Habeeb would hit two 3-pointers to tie his career-high in the category. He played his role, turned the ball over just once but it would be a surprise to see him in the starting five this week.
Faines was the other senior who would start, replacing Stephen Madison, and giving Idaho another big body to help on the offensive glass. Faines did collect nine rebounds and blocked five shots, however he wasn’t as effective as Madison may have been from a scoring standpoint.
Idaho’s bench contributed 14 points, but only two of the five bench players scored, and those were Harris and Madison, two Vandals accustomed to starting every game. Madison had nine points and four rebounds, while Harris had five points and three boards. Madison wasn’t as aggressive driving to the hoop as he’s been this season, but was still able to get to the line for 10 free-throw attempts. He converted seven of those attempts.
Theo Lawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org